Ryan Dempster left the Red Sox on Feb. 16, showing up at spring training for one day to announce he had decided to step away from the game. Only five days later, the team signed lefthander Chris Capuano to a one-year contract.
The transactions were intertwined. The Sox lost a 36-year-old pitcher who was a depth starter and replaced him with a 35-year-old pitcher for the same thankless role. Capuano worked as a starter in spring training knowing he would likely land in the bullpen.
But in the nine weeks since, Capuano has turned into much more than a veteran insurance policy for the Red Sox.
Capuano has appeared in 11 games, throwing 14⅓ innings without allowing a run. He has given up eight hits, seven of them singles, with two walks and 15 strikeouts.
Capuano has pitched the most relief innings in baseball without allowing a run. He has twice appeared in back-to-back games and on six occasions has entered the game with men on base. Only two of the seven runners he inherited have scored.
For a pitcher who hoped to continue his career as a starter, working out of the bullpen has proven to be more rewarding than expected.
“It’s a fun part of the game to be in. You get a lot of adrenaline,” Capuano said. “Wherever I’ve been going in, I’ve tried to keep it simple and focus on execution. Singular pitches and winnable counts, keep it simple as that.”
Capuano still pitches like a starter, using all five of his pitches to both sides of the plate. He hasn’t dropped any of his pitches or changed his approach.
“I don’t want the batter to be able to eliminate anything,” he said. “I’m still pitching the way I pitch. Just more often.”
The Red Sox were off Monday and on Tuesday play the Tampa Bay Rays to start an eight-game homestand. Lefthander Felix Doubront starts Wednesday and could be in danger of losing his place in the rotation. He is 1-3 with a 6.00 earned run average and has been erratic since spring training.
Capuano believes he could throw 75-85 pitches if given four days advance notice of a start. That would give him the chance to throw a long side session and gain some arm strength. But he might not necessarily be the answer if that need arises. He’s become too valuable in relief.
“I look at how good Chris has become in the bullpen,” manager John Farrell said. “He has earned and gained an awful lot of trust in leverage innings. You love watching him pitch. He’s smart. He’s got good location. He’s not afraid to pitch inside. He’s got a good feeling to disrupt timing. He attacks really good hitters.
“He’s done everything we could possibly ask.”
The Red Sox also are building starter depth in Triple A Pawtucket, where the rotation consists of five prospects — Matt Barnes, Rubby De La Rosa, Anthony Ranaudo, Allen Webster, and Brandon Workman.
“At some point, it would be harder to use [Capuano] as a starter, the more he starts racking up games and going shorter,” assistant general manager Mike Hazen said. “We have a pretty good rotation in Triple A, so hopefully we don’t need him.”
Though the Red Sox initially signed Capuano as starting depth, they also evaluated the four relief appearances he made for the Los Angeles Dodgers last season and wondered how that would translate over a full season. In that small sample size, Capuano threw 4⅔ scoreless innings and struck out seven.
There was an uptick in velocity and his breaking pitches had more bite. Knowing he would pitch only for an inning or so allowed Capuano to throw with more effort.
“I think my stuff is a little better in relief,” he said. “I’ve picked up a few miles per hour, for sure. There’s something about pitching in shorter stints that helps you.”
Capuano also likes the idea of being available every day rather than waiting for a long-relief opportunity. The idea of being an emergency starter wasn’t appealing.
“I knew this was kind of the role I’d be in and I like how they run the bullpen here. It doesn’t matter who gets the job done. It’s anybody, any day,” he said. “Sometimes when you’re that sixth starter you can sit there for 12 days and not pitch.”
It is a job that requires adjustments. Capuano, a West Springfield native, is getting used to working with the relievers instead of having the four-day routine of starters. His arm has so far stood up to more frequent use.
Capuano, who was signed to a one-year deal worth $2.25 million, also wonders what pitching successfully as a reliever could do for his career.
“It’s good when you’re not stuck in one role. I look at pitchers who have had longevity — Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Andy Pettitte — who were starters late in their career. Or relievers like Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera. Whatever role I’m in going forward, being diligent in my routine and taking care of myself are the biggest factors,” he said.
“I want to play as long as I can. Most of the guys I have talked to who have retired will tell you just play as long as you can. Once it stops, it’s a hard transition.”
Capuano was 4-7 with a 4.26 ERA for the Dodgers last season and was left on the sidelines throughout free agency. He initially hoped for a two-year deal before lowering those expectations.
“We felt the best thing was to wait,” he said. “But at some point the leverage started to work in the team’s favor. It was disappointing it took that long.”
Once the Red Sox lost Dempster, Capuano was the obvious choice.
“He provides a ton of flexibility and he’s a good pitcher. We didn’t really understand why he was still out there,” Hazen said.
Capuano, who until this season had never pitched a major league game at Fenway Park, has no regrets. He is an important player on a team he believes will contend for the postseason again.
“I’m not a big believer in fate or destiny or anything like that. But having this opportunity open up in the strange way that it did, I’m certainly happy to be here in Boston,” he said.